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Essay on music education by Ed Roseman, author of the popular music theory and blues piano instruction books Edly's Music Theory for Practical People and Edly Paints the Ivories Blue.

Teach Your Children Well

"Teach your Children Well" was the original title of Keyboard magazine's January 1993 Guest Editorial "Blood on the Battlefield of Music Education."

I recently had the opportunity to observe a high school music class somewhere in southern Maine. The day's morsel was a music history filmstrip whose educational value roughly equaled that of a Gilligan's Island rerun. While all of the information in the film's soundtrack was technically correct, it was packaged such that it only really made sense if one were already familiar with the material-and students are generally not-that's why they're students. The visuals were badly chosen; often misleading, sometimes completely irrelevant. During a Gregorian Chant, for example, there were shots of the ocean, rippled sand, and a starfish-fine for a relaxation video, but here serving only to distract. The students' smirks and obviously wandering attention made it clear to me that the meditative majesty of the chant was lost on the majority of them. Furthermore, throughout the film, the soundtrack's explanations sometimes addressed-superficially-"what" and "how", but never even remotely "so what" or "why significant". And "why significant" is the most important question I can think of when trying to breach the chasm of centuries. Amplifying comments from an insightful teacher could have filled the gap, but the teacher's comments only served further to fray the filmstrip's already tenuous thread. Even as a casual observer, it was clear to me that the connection wasn't being made. The teacher did not seem to notice-or if he did, he did not seem troubled. I was, though. During a Bach fugue, a trap set (the drum set used in jazz and rock) was regrettably one of the images vying for the students' attention. Neither the teacher nor the soundtrack mentioned that the trap set had nothing whatsoever to do with the music being played, nor was any meaningful explanation of fugue offered. Ugh.

Maybe this class was a rare exception, although I doubt it. If it indeed was not, Mr. Music Teacher, do yourself and the students a favor: burn that film, and give some concentrated thought as to how to introduce students to music. We owe it to our students to help them understand why great music is great; merely telling them that it is so does not serve to open any initially closed doors.

The time has come for us music teachers to bring renewed creativity and sense of purpose to our work. Western music history is marching on and the seam between music's venerated composers and its vernacular hitmakers has split open beyond the point of being a rift-it's now a chasm. Music educators are faced with a crisis which we can choose to face or ignore: how do we bridge this chasm for our students, or perhaps more appropriately, how do we make it more likely for them to want to bridge this gap themselves? I question whether old doorways into music appreciation and instrumental instruction are not hanging on rusty hinges which barely squeak open. We as educators are on the inside of a figurative room of understanding. We must invite our students in from where they stand. This is not just a question of starting at the beginning, but a question of style of invitation. If "Hot Cross Buns" was indeed ever hot, which I doubt, it isn't likely still to be to teenage ears used to Phil Collins and Nirvana. I'd wager that to the majority of teenagers, Bach is "museum music", and makes them want to "hurl"- or at least catch some z's.

As I see it, we have two choices as to how to demummify the ones with wigs: we can step into the museum with our students and turn on the lights and open the windows, or we can invite the museum exhibits out to stand next to today's music makers. In class we could listen to a song by (contemporary alternative group) Primus and a movement from a Bartok String Quartet, and then discuss the similarities and differences. Or play a movement of Mozart and ask the students' impressions. If they're indifferent, could it have anything to do with the lack of distorted guitars, or of percussion, especially a trap set, or the use of composition techniques and forms which are new to them? For a class discussion on texture in music, an Enya song could be contrasted with one by Megadeth and parts of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony, for example. For a discussion of harmony, a chordless rap piece or a raga could be contrasted with a Satie Gymnopedie or something by Schoenberg. What about a teacher led in-class dissection of a highly produced pop song's form and orchestration? For gone are the days when an average person could identify the source of the sounds in a popular song, for much of today's popular music is produced by electronic means undreamed of by the majority of its listeners. Is it live or sampled? Multi-tracked or chorused? Just exactly how do rap artists get that stuttering vocal sound, or that d-e-e-p bass hit on beats one and three? How can there be two (or three) Stevies singing at once on an average Stevie Wonder song? Why do those thrash metal singers sound like they're fifteen feet tall and from hell? How does a synthesizer work? Can we realistically expect students to understand the inner workings of music written two or three hundred years ago when they are unable to hear what is going on in the music they hear every day? The list of questions goes on, or at least, it should. If, as a music teacher, these questions are of no concern to you; if you believe that they are not worthy of being addressed, then to me, that is cause for concern.

We must balance reverence of the classics with an awareness of the colloquial. We must be prepared to explain why the classics are classics, for although "why" may be clear to us as teachers, to the uninitiated, it ain't necessarily so. We must round out today's music education. There are too many pianists who can spin out Debussy note for note, but are unable to peck out a modest "Happy Birthday" at a party or play even a very basic twelve bar blues. Too many teachers approach every student of any age as if s/he were being groomed for the conservatory. Clearly, we who teach privately must be flexible.

We must embrace technology selectively, and examine and evaluate our teaching aids and methods critically. In another junior high music class I visited, each student spent part of a term "designing a musical instrument". Unfortunately, they were actually manipulating shapes on a computer screen to create pictures of musical instrumentoids of fact or fancy. "Designing musical instruments" is to music education as studying grammar is to preparing for the Boston Marathon. It's as effective as using a rubber duck to drive nails. "Computer-Aided Musical Instrument Design" belongs in computer literacy class, not music class. Rulers-on-the-wrists teachers belong only in the bad memories of older adults. Filmstrips such as the one I saw belong in the trash can. Teachers who show them without significant embellishment and spirited explanation belong on an assembly line, not in the classroom.

For some teachers, "the way it's been taught for years" equals "the way I'll teach for years." That's one equation we must help to change if we are indeed to teach our children well.

-by Ed Roseman